Pope Paul VI and The Prophetic Witness of Humanae Vitae
blessing. "How dare the Church insert itself into our bedrooms!" cried the voices of dissent. It would have been more honest if those same voices would have simply admitted their intolerance for any advocates of self-discipline in the area of sexual pleasure.
Today, however, things are changing. Catholics and other Christians in growing number are recognizing the perennial and prophetic witness of Humanae Vitae. What was before despised is now in many cases revered. The whole encyclical is overflowing with profound and wise teaching on the crucial importance of cooperating with the Creator in free and loving obedience, the natural moral law, Catholic anthropology, the transmission of human life, marriage, human fertility, and so forth. It is a must read for anyone who wants to know how to live a fully human life of happiness.
When we read the encyclical, it is in a way difficult to imagine it as a source of previous scorn. For instance, in the opening paragraphs we read of Pope Paul's sincere love and concern for married couples, including the lives and happiness of all human beings:
"The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator. It has always been a source of great joy to them, even though it sometimes entails many difficulties and hardships.
"The fulfillment of this duty has always posed problems to the conscience of married people, but the recent course of human society and the concomitant changes have provoked new questions. The Church cannot ignore these questions, for they concern matters intimately connected with the life and happiness of human beings."
In section II, titled "Doctrinal Principles," Pope Paul taught that when considering the question of human procreation and the use of artificial birth control, since it is a question which touches on human life itself, it is "the whole man and the whole mission to which he is called that must be considered: both its natural, earthly aspects and its supernatural, eternal aspects" (HV 7). Stated another way, the human person is a moral agent who possesses the capacity to shape his character and father his own being by his choices, actions or inactions, and thus seal his eternal destiny by either collaborating with God's plan of wise goodness or attempting to frustrate and undermine it. There are consequences for heedlessly ignoring or rejecting the natural moral law.
In article 12, Paul VI notes that the conjugal act is ordered toward both the union of the spouses and human procreation, which constitutes an inseparable, fundamental connection inherent in the marriage act. This fundamental connection between an intimate union of the spouses and openness to new life is ordained by the will of God according to eternal law. Simply stated, in creating man and woman, God has wisely written laws into their nature for their own good. It is no accident or mere coincidence of evolution that the human sexual faculties are what they are and do what they do. God has a purpose for human sexuality. When that purpose is thwarted or circumvented by the use of artificial birth control, the will of God, who is the Author of Life, is contradicted (HV 13).
Again, Pope Paul is concerned for the eternal well being of the human person and his or her happiness: the "fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life -- and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called."
The natural moral law reveals that man does not have unlimited dominion over his body or his sexual faculties (HV 13), for both of these must be used within the limits of the order of reality established by God (HV 16). When these limits are ignored, rejected or exceeded, horrifying consequences result. Here we are brought to Pope Paul's prophetic words in article 17:
"Let [responsible men] first consider how easily [artificial birth control] could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings . . . need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.
"Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife" (HV 17).
Many of these predictions have come to pass in one form or other: the grave moral decline of contemporary society; the promotion of false notions of freedom which are detached from the moral law; the wildly out-of-control transmission and use of pornography; the devaluation of the institution of marriage; skyrocketing divorce rates; the "friends with benefits" (FWB) phenomenon in which friendships are arranged to include sexual activity without commitment to emotional or any other bonds.
Just a few years after Humanae Vitae the wedge of artificial birth control was driven so deeply between the marital act and human procreation that it spawned the unspeakable evil of legalized abortion in the U.S. under the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. The logical extension of the contraceptive mentality is the abortion mentality.
Further, we are now confronted with the HHS mandate, the attacks on the right to exercise freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, and a President who adamantly insists that it isn't fair for the Catholic Church to refuse to provide abortion inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilizations to insurance recipients. We have to wonder, what is next?
Not until men and women begin to understand that they are bodily and spiritual beings, moral agents whose bodies must always be used to speak the language of truth, will we see the terrifyingly steep moral descent of America begin to flatten out. The more people who embrace the Church as the city of truth in Christ, a holy womb of love in which men are taught how to live and how to die, the more will society become aligned with the will of our loving God, who "works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28).
F. K. Bartels is a Catholic writer who knows his Catholic Faith is one of the greatest gifts a man could ever receive. He is a contributing writer for Catholic Online. Visit him also at joyintruth.com
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Pope Benedict XVI's Prayer Intentions for January 2013
General Intention: The Faith of Christians. That in this Year of Faith Christians may deepen their knowledge of the mystery of Christ and witness joyfully to the gift of faith in him.
Missionary Intention: Middle Eastern Christians. That the Christian communities of the Middle East, often discriminated against, may receive from the Holy Spirit the strength of fidelity and perseverance.
Keywords: Humanae Vitae, the language of the body, catholic anthropology, the truth of the human person, artificial birth control, contraceptives, marital union, procreation, human procreation, Church teaching on sex, human sexuality, F. K. Bartels
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